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Patrick Springer, Published November 13 2013

Task force on violence against Indian children to meet in Bismarck

FARGO – The first hearing of a federal task force examining the impact of violence on American Indian children will convene Dec. 9 in Bismarck.

A 12-member advisory group that is part of the task force is co-chaired by former Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who has long been an advocate for American Indian children and once chaired the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

Attorney General Eric Holder made the announcement Wednesday during a meeting of the Tribal Nations Conference in Washington. Bismarck is one of four hearing locations.

“We will not accept the shameful fact that American Indians are disproportionately likely to become victims of crime and violence,” Holder said, according to a transcript of his remarks.

Noting that almost half of all Indian women and girls experience rape, violence or stalking, Holder added: “We simply cannot stand for such an unjust and unacceptable status quo any longer.”

Holder was introduced by David Gipp, president of United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, who noted that Holder’s predecessor, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, traveled to Bismarck 50 years ago to meet with the National Congress of American Indians.

Kennedy pledged to work toward a “nation in which neither Indians nor any other racial or religious minority will live in under privilege,” a vision Holder said has yet to be realized.

The task force hearings and recommendations will help to highlight problems that have plagued American Indian children for far too long, said Dorgan, who formed the Center for Native Youth at the Aspen Institute.

“This is one of those issues that has been in the shadows too long,” Dorgan said in a telephone interview.

“We’ve got a lot of Indian children in this country living in Third World conditions,” he said. “Somehow it has to change.”

Many people are shocked to learn of the appalling conditions that are too common in Indian country, Dorgan said.

He mentioned a 12-year-old girl who was sexually abused in two foster homes, then found safety in a shelter. But the shelter’s budget was reduced because of the sequester funding cuts.

“These are real stories,” Dorgan said, adding that similar stories are found on reservations throughout the northern Great Plains and elsewhere.

Tim Purdon, the U.S. attorney for North Dakota, is among a working group of officials in the Department of Justice and the Department of Interior that anchor the task force. Purdon is chairman of a Justice Department Native American issues subcommittee.

“We’re obviously very excited about this,” Purdon said of Wednesday’s announcement about the upcoming hearing in Bismarck.

Some steps already have been taken, he said, including a community prosecution partnership with North Dakota tribes.

“Obviously, there are issues in North Dakota,” Purdon said, and cited two recent high-profile cases on the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation: the stabbing deaths of two siblings by their cousin, and a toddler who died after her step-grandmother shoved her down an embankment.

The federal task force is a significant effort that should translate into progress, with prevention of violence against children the ultimate goal, Purdon said.

“I think it’s an important step,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522